Women's World Cup: Some final thoughts

Spanish players hold up Women's World Cup final hero Olga Carmona during the reception at Madrid Rio on Monday. Photo: Oscar J. Barroso/AFP7 via ZUMA Press Wire/ISI Photos

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Probably the greatest quality of a World Cup is its ability to surprise, and the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand delivered.

The expansion of the tournament from 24 to 32 teams should have widened the gap between the top and bottom teams, but it did just the opposite, creating a month of drama.

Just about every team could return home with something to shout about.

The upsets? The Philippines defeating co-host New Zealand, Nigeria beating the other co-host, Australia. Colombia stunning Germany, and then Morocco pipping Germany, which had beaten the Atlas Lionesses, 6-0, earlier in the tournament, for second place in their group. Jamaica's Reggae Girlz holding both France and Brazil to scoreless draws and claiming a berth in the round of 16 four years after losing all three games in France -- and conceding hat tricks in each of them.

The near-upsets? For a couple of years, it was apparent that the USA was ripe for the picking, and its decline was there for everyone to see in the final moments of the final group match against Portugal. The unthinkable almost happened, the two-time defending champions holding on for dear life, saved from elimination in the group stage by the post.

"It was by mere centimeters that we didn’t make another dream come true," said Ana Capeta after her shot in stoppage time smashed off Alyssa Naeher's left post, sparing the USA from suffering the biggest upset in the history of soccer.

Small margins. World Cups are weird events. The margins between victory and defeat are often so small.

Mere centimeters spared the USA in the group stage, but a millimeter was the difference in the next round between the Americans going on to the quarterfinals and exiting in a shootout to Sweden. Locational data captured by cameras showed Lina Hurtig's penalty kick in the seventh round had crossed the line.

"It's tough to have your World Cup end by a millimeter," said Naeher, who desperately waved at officials to try to convince them that she had saved Hurtig's shot.

World Cups are so different from American pro sports like baseball, basketball and ice hockey, where champions ware crowned after seven-game series. By the end, it's usually indisputable who is the better team.

The shootout saved Sweden against the USA and England against Nigeria when the loser was the better team. The same could've been said for France, which fell to Australia in the quarterfinals after a record 10-round shootout.

The Matildas' shootout win touched off wild celebrations across Australia and was immediately hailed as the greatest moment in the country's sporting history. It made me think back to 1999 and the USA's shootout win over China and what it meant to women's soccer here. 

There might have been no "'99ers" as part of our soccer parlance if there had been VAR and Liu Ying had been ordered to retake her penalty kick because Brian Scurry took a few steps off her line before she saved Liu's shot. ("Everybody does it," the U.S. keeper famously said afterwards. "It's only cheating if you get caught.")

Deserving champions. Thank goodness, then, we have Spain.

There was no dispute about who was the deserving champion of the 2023 Women's World Cup.

La Roja overcame a year of turmoil and the loss of five players who played in the Euro 2022 quarterfinals against England but did not go to the World Cup in the aftermath of "Las 15" protests --  Sandra PanosMaria LeonPatricia GuijarroLaia Aleixandri and Amaiur Sarriegi -- and it managed to put a stunning 4-0 loss to Japan in the group stage behind it to join the USA, Norway, Germany and Japan as just one of just five women's world champions.

Spain not only had the best players -- Aitana Bonmati (below) won the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player and Barcelona teammate Salma Paralluelo was named the best young player -- but it played the best as a team.

Team play was the big winner at the 2023 Women's World Cup. 

Four years ago, it would have been unimaginable that a Vietnam could hold the USA to three goals or Jamaica would shut out France and Brazil or Nigeria completely stymie England. (The latter two with U.S.-based coaches, I might add.)

In an interview in The Athletic, Jill Ellis, who coached the USA to 2015 and 2019 World Cup championships and served as the head of FIFA's technical committee for the 2023 World Cup, credited "a higher level of sophistication in dealing with those special players who can suddenly change the game" and a "higher level of awareness of the game plan" and "better structure and organization in terms of the whole team" as the biggest changes in the women's game.

It made for more even play -- and more drama -- throughout much of the tournament. The downside was the 2023 Women's World Cup averaged just 2.56 goals per game, the lowest scoring rate in the tournament's history.

The absence of many of the world's top attacking players or the limited availability of others due to injuries didn't help. Alexia Putellas, the two-time Ballon d'or winner, fell into the latter category. She returned from her ACL knee injury suffered in 2022 but was a non-factor at the World Cup.

Spain managed to overcome Putellas' ineffectiveness and the loss of Guijarro to lead the World Cup in scoring with 17 goals in seven games and expected goals with an average of 2.78 per game. Spain's passing statistics were off the charts. It completed an average of 584 passes per game -- 25 more than Argentina did when it won the 2022 men's title in Qatar -- and its completion rate was a tournament high of 82 percent -- the USA's was 70.7 percent.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. It just wasn't the quantity of the passes but the variety. The Spaniards unsettled teams down with their passing triangles, dominating midfield with Teresa Abelleira working alongside Bonmati and creating opportunities for Olga Carmona -- the left back! -- to come forward and score the winning goal in both the semifinal win over Sweden and the final against England.

European influence. Spain's championship shows just how quickly women's soccer is changing.  

There was a big Barcelona influence to the Spanish team and its style of play. But FC Barcelona Femení with six Spain starters in the final wasn't professionalized until the summer of 2015, after La Roja made its first appearance in the World Cup. 

But there was more to Spain than Barca. Abelleira and Carmona both play for Real Madrid. Four years ago, when Spain fell to the USA in the round of 16 at the Women's World Cup, Real Madrid Femenino had not yet played its first season.

The entry of Europe's soccer giants into the women's game is a relatively new phenomenon. And so is the emergence of the UEFA Women's Champions League as the biggest (and most lucrative) competition in women's club soccer. Its new format with group play just completed its second season. The 2023 Champions League quarterfinalists produced almost half the starters -- 21 of 44 players -- on the four semifinalists at the Women's World Cup.

But the influence of the European club game extends beyond the elite to smaller teams. In his interview with Soccer America's Mike Woitalla, Jamaica coach Lorne Donaldson credited his European-based players for setting the tone on his team and instilling the confidence in the Reggae Girlz that they could achieve something at the World Cup. Thirteen of Donaldson's Jamaicans played in Europe last season, though only star Bunny Shaw (No. 11 in photo) played for a major team, scoring 20 goals in 22 games in her first season with Manchester City.

You can go down the rosters of tournament upstarts like Colombia and Nigeria and see their European influence. Haiti, the youngest team at the World Cup with an average age of 23.2, didn't win a game (or score a goal) but Les Grenadières were competitive in every game with a squad that featured 14 players based at modest French clubs.

NWSL wake-up call. Where does this leave American soccer? The 2023 Women's World Cup was a wake-up call about the NWSL, which didn't have one starter on the four semifinalists. More generally, how could the league lose out on the tournament's many young standouts like Colombia's Linda Caicedo (at Real Madrid) or Haiti's Melchie Dumornay (now at Lyon after starting out in France at Reims)? (Well, it already happened when the NWSL lost Catarina Macario, the best American to come along in at least the last 10 years, to Lyon in 2021.)

The NWSL has been around for a decade but was a very modest operation until recently and is only now getting the investment it needs. In 2019, when the USWNT won its fourth world championship, an NWSL team's salary cap was $421,500 and the minimum salary was $16,538. Four years later, those figures are $1,375,000 and $36,400. Only now are NWSL sporting departments getting the resources they need in terms of staffing to even think of competing with big European clubs.

Thinking big. And U.S. Soccer? The WYNT program has been a mess for the last decade as its teams have struggled at world championships. Spain, Japan, France, England, even Colombia, are all producing youth players better prepared to succeed at the senior level. The USWNT is dependent on a system that has one goal in mind -- produce the most number of players for college soccer. There is nothing wrong with that -- until you examine the ridiculous costs associated with playing on teams in the ECNL.

On the men's side, the federation's national teams are benefiting from the massive investment by MLS owners into their academies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. On the women's side, there is nothing equivalent.

If U.S. Soccer wants the USWNT to remain among the elite of women's soccer, it must find a way to circumvent the existing girls club system. This is not news.

In 2015, Ellis (with Cindy Parlow Cone and April Heinrichs at her 2023 Hall of Fame induction) had a warning for the American game: “If we sit where we are, we’ll get run over.” Well, it did, and it has.

U.S. Soccer was then exploring three initiatives, according to then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, that it hoped would strengthen the women's program:

• Residency program for girls;
• Development academy for girls; and
• Summer program for college women.

The second was tried and failed spectacularly. The third's value has lessened as the college game's importance has waned with the onset of top high school players turning pro.

As for the first, Gulati said in 2015 when it was proposed that the residency program "would not be tournament-focused with a specific age group, but development-focused with players in multiple age groups playing a lot of competitions."

It was an ambitious program, different from the U-17 boys residency program in Bradenton, and it never got off the ground.

U.S. Soccer must reconsider a residency program for girls. Whether it's targeted for an age group like U-17s or multiple age groups doesn't matter. But it must be a skill-based program. It might not happen overnight and it might not have an impact within four years when the USA might co-host the 2027 Women's World Cup.

But within the next decade, U.S. Soccer will have its own national training center, and it should make a girls residency program a centerpiece of its new home.

23 comments about "Women's World Cup: Some final thoughts".
  1. R2 Dad, August 22, 2023 at 8:49 a.m.

    A national training center--like England and France--looks to be the bare minimum. I would also like to see 3 day regional summer camps at the U12 level, where kids can spend 3 days being evaluated, learn strengths and weaknesses, and at the end handed a roadmap to their future excellence. The sorting, on top of the existing U programs, would complement the national training center concept.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, August 23, 2023 at 8:22 a.m.

    You can't evaluate talent with one snapshot. Talent as defined in sports science is how fast an individual improves. Where the individual starts in terms of performance is irrelevant. Potential is what should be assessed.

    This is a major point because this is exactly where our "system" fails. Professional clubs looking to sell contracts are motivated by future potential but they don't deal the start of player development.

    Also there is no reason to segregate "elite" players during the fundamental stage of development. You give wide access to development opportunities and let players (and parents) "self select" for elite soccer by the degree to which the player plays the game during the fundamental stage.

    After age 12 when ball mastery is supposed to be achieved, that is the first stage that players should be segregated according to "talent". The payoff for segregating at that age is that ball skills are needed to teach good group tactics. Particularly important is first touch. Nobody can play good tactics in a group that includes some players lacking good first touch.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, August 23, 2023 at 8:39 a.m.

    R2 in real life, coaches talk about exceptional players and development coaches further along the development path keep tabs on the progress of the standouts. This is especially true of college and professional programs. They are not making selection decisions based on one snapshot in time. Camps are just closer looks at decision time, not all the data. 

    In other words if a coach has a 8 year old phenom word gets passed around to other coaches long before the player is old enough for a professional academy program.

  4. R2 Dad replied, August 23, 2023 at 9:18 a.m.

    So, a 1 day camp at U8, to measure potential? Then a follow-up at U10? 2 data points is a basic trend. Is this something you could devise? It seems to me USSF could manage this, or perhaps an entity that is at arms length from coaches so as not to contaminate the process. No coach will send a kid just to be harvested by opponents.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, August 23, 2023 at 10:41 a.m.

    "No coach will send a kid just to be harvested by opponents." This is exactly the wrong attitude for a developmental coach. The coach's job is to prepare players to be harvested by others. But coaches focus on building winning teams instead of developing players.

    Minor league baseball managers are not judged within baseball by their team's win-loss record. They are judged by how many players do they send up to the majors.

  6. Ben Myers, August 22, 2023 at 12:13 p.m.

    First, how about a shoutout to Tori Penso, who officiated the final as well as other matches?

    Next, the USSF has to push to find some way to get the pay-for-play clubs to place more emphasis on player development. I have seen a lot of club players in my 'hood, and their capabilities range from excellent to spotty.  Many of the excellent ones have had the advantage of either being coached by someone other than the club coaches, or by getting first-rate play (pickup maybe?) and technical training when they are very young.

  7. Ben Myers replied, August 22, 2023 at 12:24 p.m.

    Look, it all starts at the Grassroots level, so let's have USSF and US Youth Soccer make a strong committment to improving the abilities of grassroots coaches, and to recruit competent and knowledgable trainers for the coaches.

    Compare with Iceland, where even the coaches at the lowest level all have A licenses.

    Right now, USSF is too passive, rather than exerting influence on pros, youth club soccer and grassroots.  All of them.

  8. R2 Dad replied, August 22, 2023 at 5:14 p.m.

    Good ideas, Ben. A U12 summer camp could work nicely with that goal, as each kid's current club would be listed along with his/her coach's name. What I remember from boys DA was that since all those match reports were posted to the web site (allowing eveyrone to see who was naughty and who was nice), coach behavior was excellent. When the nations coaches think someone is watching, they tend to stop being complete raving lunatics who chew out 14 year old referees until they cry.

  9. James Madison, August 22, 2023 at 7:49 p.m.

    IMHO, from the US perspective, the challenge is less where the preparation takes place than what the preparation consists of. The long term benefits of a college education sometimes weigh in favor of deferring professional refforts in favor of a compeititve college program at a first-rate university and in the cases of other individuals do not. Moreover, some individuals are able to assess those alternatives effecftively while others are not.  Compare, for example, Girma, who stood out, with Rodman, who showed raw, but unfinished talent, and Thompson, who is not yet ready to play at the international level. The real problem lies in the composition of the preparaton. Focusing on athleticism and speed without adequate emphasis on learning the game and developing the technique that enables playing the game effetively underlay the US inability to defend its title. The failue of he United States to prepare a cohort of competitive players should be clear. We have underperformd in consecutive U-20 competitions. As a result, in 2023 we fielded a team that was  "thin"---a mix of players not lfully prepared with players who were past their prime. I suppose it's arguable that Vlako's decision to use Rapinoe, for example, as he did was influenced by what I will characterize as politics. Assuming, however, that it was on the merits, it underscores the paucity of the resources he had available.  Even so, we defended well. With a more effective attack, we could easiily have wound up where Sweden did---in third place.

  10. Bob Ashpole, August 22, 2023 at 10:26 p.m.

    What I saw was suspicious activity that looked like match fixing by referrees apparently working for the gambling industry. If true, match rigging of FIFA competitions would kill the international sport. What I also saw was no one commenting on the suspicious activity. These facts are very disturbing. I won't hold my breath waiting for FIFA to investigate.

  11. R2 Dad replied, August 22, 2023 at 11:33 p.m.

    Was not on my radar at all, as I didn't watch through all the matches. Was there a specific match or two you thought was most egragious?

  12. Santiago 1314 replied, August 23, 2023 at 7:01 a.m.

    Yes Bob, "Extrapolate"... You know I like a Good Conspiracy Theory.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, August 23, 2023 at 8:07 a.m.

    1. FIFA officials violated the competition rules when they dropped the USA from the competition. VAR is not used for goal line decisions. The rules eliminate human judgement from those decisions. The electronic system (beep-watch) is used. Eliminating human judgement protects against bribery of officials in this area. VAR is human judgement. In this case the electronic system confirmed that the ball did not completely cross the goal line. In the now famous VAR image, where is the keeper's hand? Images are literally child's play to cheat with.

    2. I saw two soft yellows against key players for two different favored countries during the group stage. Soft yellow are a common way in Europe to manipulate the outcome of subsequent matches. 

    This is what investigators call "indicators of fraud". It doesn't mean fraud actually occurred. They are suspicious acts that should be investigated. I can't imagine an innocent explanation for the violation of the competition rules, but there might be. The use of soft yellows leaves a clear trail that can be investigated easily. Cheating typically leaves a distinctive pattern.

    I really dislike the legalization of sports betting. We could make it illegal here in the US, but it would still go on internationally and on the internet. People have apps on their phones! 

  14. R2 Dad replied, August 24, 2023 at 12:23 p.m.

    Is there an internal FIFA organization that looks for these types of irregularities? Curious what Collina would have to say. For me, soft yellows can be used for match control. But FIFA should focus on officiating consistency , which seems to have been a big problem.

  15. Bob Ashpole, August 23, 2023 at 8:11 a.m.

    If you don't understand how easy it is to cheat with an image, consider this. Which side of the line is the ball on in the image in the press reports?

  16. Santiago 1314 replied, August 23, 2023 at 10:26 a.m.

    My point Exactly;
    If the Ball, has to Travel Across "The Whole of the Line" from Inside to Outside the Field.
    AND you see NO Separation between the Ball and the Line, then;

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, August 23, 2023 at 10:44 a.m.

    The point of the question was that there is no context for the image--no way to tell which side of the line is the field and which is outside the field. You think the top is out? Flip the image.

  18. Bob Ashpole, August 23, 2023 at 10:37 a.m.

    Oh oh! One of the USWNT captains just publicly stated that the team was not adequately prepared for the competition. Strongly implying if not expressly stating that there was a coaching failure. 

    The locker room frustration with the coach must have been worse than I suspected. I don't think this was about personalities. I think this is about the quality of soccer that the team is playing. 

    This sounds like a warning to USSF that they had better bring in an outstanding coach.

    The problem is that the national team players know alot about the game. And when you have players who know more about the game and played at a higher level then a coach, a coach who doesn't respect the players, that doesn't go well. 

    Vlatko is a former professional, a central defender, who came to the US and played indoor. He never played at the international level. He should have been let go in 2019. USSF needs to hire a coach with a lot of credibility because this team will be a tough audiance. Another central defender is not the way to go with a team that plays an attacking style. This isn't Italy.

  19. Kent James, August 23, 2023 at 4:01 p.m.

    Excellent final summary, Paul.  I think one of the most unfortunate trends is that the highest quality women's professional soccer will be in Europe, as it is with the men.  Given our historical dominance (and early start) in the women's game, it would have been nice to get the best players in the world to come here to play rather than Europe. I hope our pro teams will still fight for that.

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, August 23, 2023 at 4:09 p.m.

    The European league was a long term strategy to create more competitive teams vs. the USWNT. It isn't just the obvious benefit of competitions for club and national teams. The changes that they made greatly reduced the availability of quality opponents for the US.

  21. humble 1, August 24, 2023 at 11:13 a.m.

    When you quote Gulati - you go off the rails.  In 2015 - when Gulati - who was in charge of USSF for how long?  - was 'considering' DA and residency for girls - boys already had them.  DA since 2007.  Why so long?  That was a big factor in losing the lawsuit.  Also - if you read the 'other' settlement - the one with MLS - in/around 2015 - how do you think the context was in NWSL?  Do you think maybe - just maybe - the girls around the world knew this - and maybe it was known as not a very professional context?  Maybe.  The national team CANNOT ID talent at U12 - U12 is by definition - 11 year old girls - 6th graders!  This is the perview of clubs!  U14 at the earliest.  This is common practice around the world.  We are a unique country - but there is some common ground - going back to U12 - boys DA did this - yes - yes - I know girls mature earlier - but still 11 years old sixth graders - are you crazy??!! Also you write 'MLS owners massive investment in academies'  - are you sure about this - please provide references - I'd like to see the numbers.  What we do know here - facts that can be check was that with DA - USSF was xfering more than $10M per year to MLS Academies.  With MLS Next - many academies have reduced the number of teams they sponsor - in my town - before it was U12, U13, U14, U16, U18.  Today it is U19, U17, U15.  Reduced by 20%.  Please - would love to read more about the 'massive' investment in academy players by MLS owners.  I have my doubts.  There is so much to do here in the USA - we will fail with our 'TO-BE' plan and execution - if - we don't get the 'AS-IS' correct.  Thank you.  Good day. 

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, August 24, 2023 at 2:09 p.m.

    Excellent comments.

  23. James Madison, September 8, 2023 at 5:18 p.m.

    Don't sell college soccer short. Where did Macario and Smith and the best US pluyer in the 2023 tournament---Girma---all come from.  The reel problem is the focus of development, whether residency, club or pro training grounds---speed and athleticism are emplhasized without also addressing technique and the fact that the game is a mobile game of chess.

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